Autumn and Winter Tasks

Many non-gardeners think of the cooler months as the dead season, when little is happening. In fact, there is plenty to do: lifting certain plants, removing any remaining dead material, forking over beds to weed them and open the soil, and then top-dressing them. Your garden machinery should also be thoroughly checked over and oiled. Finally, there is the excitement of sitting down with seed catalogues and planning how your garden will look in the coming seasons.

Borders and beds

One thing to make sure you get done before the frosts set in is to lift more vulnerable plants. Tender plants such as pelargoniums should be potted up and overwintered in a greenhouse (or take cuttings if you don’t have much storage space). Tender bulbs such as gladioli should be lifted if you live in a cold area, especially if your soil is heavy. Dry them, then store them somewhere frost-free and check every few weeks.

Here is a decorative way of giving
slightly tender plants winter
protection. Remove the container
during warmer, damp weather.


Another major job is to remove all the dead stems and foliage from the previous year. Some gardeners like to leave these as long as possible to provide the birds with a source of food in the form of seeds and any insects that hide in the dead foliage. Others leave it because it gives structure and something to look at during the winter months.

Other gardeners are eager to clear the ground as soon as possible. In addition to giving you a much tidier-looking garden, the main benefit of this is that you avoid leaving the clearing up to the last minute in early spring, when there are suddenly lots of other jobs to do. If work is then delayed due to bad weather, it can have a knock-on effect for the rest of the year.

Tender plants such as these
pelargoniums need protection in
a frost-free glass house during the
winter months.

You can have the best of both worlds if you cut the dead material and then hang it up so that the birds can still get at it. All the material removed from the beds should eventually be composted so that its goodness can be returned to the soil. Hardened stems are best shredded first, if possible.

Once the borders have been cleared, lightly fork them over to open up the soil and to remove all weeds, before top-dressing them with well-rotted organic material up to 10cm/4in thick. The beds are now well prepared for the next season. Any new planting should be done in either the early autumn or spring.

Avoid working on the beds if the soil is too wet. If it becomes a necessity, then use a wooden plank to stand on, as this will spread your weight and limit damage to the soil.

Winter plant care

Remember that not all plants die back in winter and that there are a surprising number that still produce flowers and foliage. There is generally not much to do to these except enjoy them.

One thing that is generally not required is watering. If, however, you have containers that are in the lee of the house or a wall, so that they get little rain, they should be watered occasionally if the soil gets dry. This should be sparingly done so that the soil is left just moist and not wringing wet.

Winter-flowering perennials
  • Anemone nemorosa
  • Eranthis hyemalis
  • Helleborus:  
    • H. niger
    • H. orientalis
    • H. purpurascens
  • Iris unguicularis
  • Primula vulgaris
  • Pulmonaria rubra
  • Viola odorata
  • Euphorbia rigida

Garden machinery

Once autumn draws in and winter begins, the lawnmowers, strimmers and hedge cutters tend to be put away and forgotten about until they are next needed. This is, however, the ideal time to have them checked over properly and maintained, ready to use next season. Even if you are not doing this straight away, all your machines should be thoroughly cleaned and oiled.

Catalogue joys

One of the most enjoyable aspects of gardening is the planning. The weather may be unsuitable for gardening itself, but there is nothing more pleasurable than sitting down with a pile of catalogues, dreaming of what you could do if only your garden was twenty times larger.

On a more practical note, this is the time to look seriously at the catalogues to choose the seeds and plants you will be using next year in your hanging baskets and borders. The perennial plants may be constant factors, but you have much greater freedom with annuals, and if you are bold enough you can try something completely different. You might be seduced by the novelties in the catalogue or you might decide to change the colour scheme from, say, reds and yellows to blues and yellows, or even to all white.

Lifting and Replanting Dahlias

1. The time to lift the dahlias for winter storage is just as the first frosts blacken the foliage or when it naturally begins to die back. Remove the foliage and cut back the stems, leaving about 20cm (8in) of each one attached to the tuber.

Picture of Patio Planting

2. Fork gently around the plant, leaving a radius of 25–40cm (10–16in) from the main stem, depending on the amount of growth it has made. Gently lift the root, taking great care not to damage the tubers. Now carefully remove the soil from around the tubers. Heavy soils may need to be washed off with water from a hose or tap.

Garden Planning

3. Place the plant upside down in a box so that any moisture can drain from the hollow stems. Store in a dry, frost-free place and remove the soil from the tubers once it has dried off. Dust any damaged tubers with a fungicide such as yellow or green sulphate of ammonia and then place in boxes of barely moist peat. Overwinter in a dry, well-ventilated, cool, frost-free place.

Garden Planning

4. When green shoots emerge in spring, water sparingly to keep the compost moist. In late spring or early summer, after all risk of frost has passed, choose a sunny, sheltered spot and prepare a deep planting hole. Add a generous quantity of well-rotted manure or a long-term granular feed, and mix well into the soil at the bottom of the hole.

Garden Planning

5. Carefully lower the dahlia into the prepared hole. Add more soil or compost around the plant as necessary to bring up to soil level. The hole should be bigger than the dahlia so that there is room to spread out the tubers. Adjust the hole depth if necessary so that the soil level is the same as the previous year (this level can be seen on the plant).

Garden Planning

6. Gently firm the soil surrounding the plant, making sure as you do so that there are no gaps or air-pockets – either around the plant or between the tubers. Firm the soil down first with your hands, gently and carefully, and then more decisively with your foot. Water the plant and the area around it and then add a layer of mulch.